The "nuclear option" has been defused — for now — after Republican senators said Tuesday they would drop their blockade of Richard Cordray to be the new head of a consumer protection bureau, ending for now what had appeared to be a major crisis over the filibuster and minority rights in the Senate.
"We may have a way forward on this, I feel fairly confident," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid told his colleagues on the chamber floor moments after the GOP relented on the first of seven controversial nominees that the Democrats were prepared to push through the chamber.
Soon after, the Senate voted 71-29 to head off a filibuster of Mr. Cordray, with 17 Republicans joining Democrats to advance the nomination.
The GOP senators said they were voting in a sign of good faith that they can get a broader deal done — though all of the top Republican leadership voted for the filibuster, suggesting the push for a deal is not universally supported.
Mr. Reid says he is prepared to use a short cut, deemed the "nuclear option" because of its partisan toxicity, to change Senate rules to curtain filibusters of executive branch nominees if the GOP obstructs any of the seven nominees.
Republicans have said using the short cut, which involves changing the chamber rules through a majority vote rather than the usual two-thirds vote, would ruin the Senate.
But by agreeing to let Mr. Cordray's nomination through, the GOP has bought more time — at least the rest of Tuesday — to negotiate a broader ceasefire that would allow the other nominees through, while still preserving the right to filibuster.
The outlines of the deal appear to let through five of the seven stalled nominees, but would push President Obama to replace two of his picks to the National Labor Relations Board with other candidates. Republicans deem the two current nominees unacceptable because they were both recess appointments last year, and are the subject of a Supreme Court case.
Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who both sides said is the linchpin of the deal, said it wouldn't apply to any future nominees, but would defuse the current situation.
"I think this will calm things down," he said.
Mr. Reid had been prepared to use a shortcut, deemed the nuclear option because of its partisan toxicity, to change Senate rules to curtail filibusters of executive branch nominees. Republicans have said that using the shortcut, which involves changing the chamber rules through a majority vote rather than the usual two-thirds vote, would ruin the Senate.
But by agreeing to let Mr. Cordray's nomination through, the GOP has bought more time — at least the rest of Tuesday — to negotiate a broader cease-fire that would allow the other nominees through while still preserving the right to filibuster.
The potential deal came in the midst of extreme tension in the Senate.
As he entered the chamber Tuesday morning, Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republicans' floor leader, spotted Vice President Joseph R. Biden in the president's chair, preparing to swear in a new senator. Mr. McConnell walked to the base of the dais and waved, but he told the vice president he wouldn't get any closer.
"I won't come up there because I knew you can't be seen talking to me," said the Kentucky Republican, who served for decades in the Senate with Mr. Biden before the latter won the vice presidency.
Later, however, Mr. Biden came down from the chair and laughed with Mr. McConnell on the floor.
GOP senators had blocked Mr. Cordray for two years, arguing they had fears over the newly created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau he was tapped to lead. They figured that by denying the independent agency its head, they could stymie its work.
President Obama then issued a recess appointment for the CFPB nominee at the beginning of last year, along with several picks to the National Labor Relations Board.
A federal appeals court found the NLRB nominations unconstitutional, and the GOP had been insistent that those and the Cordray nomination not be allowed to proceed because it would give a stamp of approval to Mr. Obama's recess appointment maneuver.
The GOP had been insistent that those nominees and the Cordray nomination not be allowed to proceed because it would give a stamp of approval to Mr. Obama's recess move. But by this week, Republicans had dropped their objection to Mr. Cordray, focusing instead on the NLRB picks.